Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Casino unionists denied bail as inter-ministerial meeting remains closed

Former NagaWorld employees arrive at The Phnom Penh Appeal Court for their bail hearing on March 10, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Former NagaWorld employees arrive at The Phnom Penh Appeal Court for their bail hearing on March 10, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The Phnom Penh Appeal Court on Thursday upheld a decision to reject bail for eight Nagaworld union leaders, including union president Chhim Sithar.

The ruling was confirmed by court spokesman Plang Samnag, who did not give any additional information.

Yi Soksan, senior monitor for local rights group Adhoc, is observing the case and told reporters after the hearing that the court decision was made under the justification that releasing the unionists from pre-trial detention could cause social unrest.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, expressed dismay at the court’s decision.

“I think it is just an excuse to restrict their freedom,” Sopheap said. “But if we look at other cases involving powerful people or the rich, the authorities always release them on bail, and some cases did not go through the court procedure.”

She said the courts often use pretrial detention in cases involving activists and labor unionists, a practice contrary to international human rights standards.

“Pretrial detention should be the last measure when the court finds that the release on bail could pose a security risk or damage evidence and witnesses,” Sopheap said, dismissing the claim that the unionists posed a threat.

She said the authorities seemed uninterested in solving the dispute and to have taken the side of NagaWorld.

“We do not know what the authorities have said to the company because we have no information at all, but authorities are trying to suppress the rights of the union workers instead,” she said. “Authorities have to act as mediators to resolve disputes.”

Hundreds of employees have been peacefully striking since December, demanding the company follow labor regulations and allow them to return to work. Over the course of the strike, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court decided to put 11 workers and union members in pretrial detention on charges of incitement and violating Health Ministry measures related to COVID-19.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng met on Wednesday with relevant police and government officials in an attempt to resolve the ongoing NagaWorld labor dispute.

The meeting included representatives from the ministries of labor, justice, health, as well as the offices of the Phnom Penh governor, National Police commissioner and Phnom Penh Municipal Court. However, the results of the meeting have yet to be disclosed.

Phnom Penh deputy governor Keut Chhe refused to comment, pointing questions to the Labor Ministry. However, ministry spokesman Heng Sour said he did not join the meeting and referred the issue to the Interior Ministry.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told CamboJA on Wednesday he did not attend the session.

A Thursday statement released by the Labor Ministry didn’t mention the previous day’s meeting but instead reiterated a call for the workers to stop protesting while authorities deliberated.

“The ministry will continue to cooperate with the relevant ministries to address the workers’ concerns as well as the legitimate interests of employees,” the announcement read.

Has Rithiratana, a NagaWorld casino employee who has been striking for months, said she was disappointed with the court’s Thursday decision.

“At first, we thought there would be a solution because it was just a normal labor dispute, and when the deputy prime minister appeared to resolve the issue, it gave us more hope,” she said.

Rithiratana​ called on the authorities to push to address the issue, or else it would continue to drag on.

“We will continue to make our demands until a solution is found,” she said. “The union leaders have been charged with incitement, this is unjust for us because we do not commit incitement, we just follow labor laws and procedures.”

A statement issued this week by Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said Cambodian authorities have recently used violence against the peaceful casino protesters. Bachelet’s statement also called on the authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly and engage in dialogue to address the strikers’ legitimate requests. (Additional reporting by Seoung Nimol)